Shows, advertisers work on turning revenue generation into an art form

With TV viewers increasingly hitting the fast-forward button to speed through commercials in the programs they’ve loaded onto their DVRs, product integration between advertisers and series has become more seamless — if not exactly invisible.

Whether it’s Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin raving about Verizon during an episode of “30 Rock” or innocent conversation about a new Activision game during an episode of “The Office,” shows get additional revenue stream in a down economy and products get associated with favorite shows and characters.

Often, it’s done with a wink that doesn’t undermine the programs’ creative standards, preventing a bad taste being left in the mouths of Emmy voters. But the product and the show still must have the right fit for each other, and the product has to appear in a way that makes contextual sense for the audience to accept it, says Joe Shields, president of the Entertainment Resources and Marketing Assn.

“If you have Michael Scott from ‘The Office’ walk into a room and start talking about his financial institution and mortgage rates, that might not be a great pairing,” Shields says. “This is a character with a goofy sense of humor, so something like a videogame or a beer brand is something that works.”

In keeping with the “fit” concept, comedies are more likely to work with brands that have a sense of humor about themselves, while dramas might treat a brand more seriously or write a product into a scene in a more straightforward manner. Some also point out that certain brands work in some situations, so having them appear in a scene can actually be less obtrusive than covering up a logo.

“I think it makes sense for there to be real brands that the audience knows in most scenes,” says Rick Bentley, a television critic with the Fresno Bee. “It’s actually a lot more distracting if a character is having breakfast and pulls out a box of cereal that says ‘Crazy O’s’ instead of ‘Cheerios’ on it.”

Bentley also points out that some shows, like “Chuck,” are not very subtle with product placement and end up putting him off. One episode of this show in particular mentioned Subway sandwiches so many times it started to annoy the critic.

“You really never want to get to that point with your audience,” says Marc Berman, television critic for Adweek. “What you’re looking for is to have that positive association with the show because it’s very powerful.”

At the same time, without the support from Subway, “Chuck” might have been canceled after its second season — instead of heading for a fifth this fall. After a major campaign to save the show that involved buying $5 footlongs at Subway, the sandwich chain was touted as a key sponsor when the show’s third-season renewal was announced in May 2009. More recently, Toyota has been a product showcased, however awkwardly, on “Chuck.”

Berman thinks shows with rabid, devoted fans are among the best for advertisers because those shows have motivated viewers. So such programs as “Lost,” “30 Rock,” and “Heroes” that have cult followings are very valuable to advertisers.

“You can’t look at ’30 Rock’ as a show with a small audience,” says Berman. “They might be lower in the ratings overall, but their core audience is people with high incomes, so they’d be important if you want to reach that person.”

Berman is also quick to point out that product integration is just the latest spin on a very old idea in television.

“If you look back over the history of television, you see that products have always been placed or integrated into popular shows that advertisers knew were being watched,” says Berman. “On ‘I Love Lucy’ they’d smoke the cigarettes or hold up the product that sponsored them all the time.”

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